High schools to get uniform 7-credit plan

Schedule to be in place by '04-'05 academic year

4 different ones used now

Cohesion in system a goal of the change, officials say

Howard County

January 19, 2003|By Tricia Bishop | Tricia Bishop,SUN STAFF

After nearly three years of inquiry and study, Howard County's high schools will begin moving next year to a uniform seven-credit school schedule from the array of markedly different itineraries they now offer.

The change thrills most administrators, who have been concerned about the confusion, the lost teaching hours and the occasional missed educational opportunities caused by having four different high school schedules.

But not everybody is happy.

"Once we started doing the math, it dawned on us that there were some serious problems," said Stephanie Coakley, who leads the Gifted and Talented Education Program Advisory Committee with Sara Seifter.

Administrators say the common arrangement will enhance elective opportunities, make school transfers less difficult and create a more cohesive school system.

"We're asking schools to work with the same set of parameters so we can be a public school system rather than a collection of 11 buildings," said Superintendent John R. O'Rourke.

Coakley and Seifter believe that students in advanced classes will get less instructional time than others - placing them at a competitive disadvantage nationally - and that the time allotted for electives is too little, which could mean fewer learning opportunities for students who enter the work force after graduation.

Assistant Superintendent Roger Plunkett, who led the way in framing the county's standard high school day, said the schedule proposal is well-planned and meets everyone's needs.

"We're certainly not neglecting any students," he said.

Plunkett pointed out that the average teaching time for gifted and talented classes now is about two hours less per year than the hours his new schedule offers and that schools will have some flexibility within the parameters to work out the kinks. But Seifter and Coakley said they are not convinced.

The schedule, being put into place first next year by Wilde Lake and Howard high schools, requires schools to work within these strictures by the 2004-2005 school year:

They must offer seven credits per year in yearlong - not semester - courses. It's recommended that they offer five 50-minute courses daily and two 85-minute, alternating-day courses.

Courses subject to high school assessment testing must have 150 hours of instructional time and meet daily. They will likely occur during the 50- minute classes, giving them a full 150 hours a year. Nonassessed courses, such as advanced placement classes, have no required teaching length and will probably have to fall in the 85-minute alternating slot. Coakley and Seifter say that leaves them short, with only 127 hours of class time.

All schools will be on a common bell schedule. This means that start and stop times for classes will be the same, which, Plunkett said, will allow students to take advantage of off-campus opportunities such as the technology magnet classes offered at the Applied Research Lab in Ellicott City.

Four models with slight variations are being used in the county's 11 high schools.

Most - including Centennial, Atholton, Glenelg, Mount Hebron, Oakland Mills and Hammond - have a seven-credit schedule that relies heavily on alternating-day classes. Reservoir High School's version most closely resembles the proposed schedule.

Wilde Lake uses a six-credit system that allows for seven credits for ambitious students.

The three other schools - Howard, Long Reach and River Hill - use a four-by-four schedule that offers students up to eight credits (four per semester) but was found to be lacking in several other ways by a study released in March 2001.

The report said the four-by-four system made it tough for teachers to cover the curriculum in a single semester, and wreaked havoc when students tried to transfer into or out of a school using it. Nearly 500 students claim they have lost credits in such switches.

"When students move from school to school, they should not feel like they're moving to another country," O'Rourke said.

Taking seven credits might be a tough transition for those at Wilde Lake used to taking six, which gives Assistant Principal Marcy Leonard pause for concern.

"Some students will be taking seven credits for the first time, and it's an adjustment," Leonard said. "We want to make sure the students are supported academically."

They will do that through teacher training and close oversight, she said.

Principals received the proposed schedule changes several weeks ago and had to quickly decide whether to adopt them for next school year or wait until 2004. The timing was tight because registration for next year's classes is just around the corner.

"That only gave us about a two- to three-week window to decide," Leonard said. "We would have loved to have gotten input from all community members, but two weeks is not enough time."

In the end, the Wilde Lake staff consulted with one another and chose to go for it.

"I felt like if the county is telling us this is the path we're going to be on, why not go ahead and get started?" Leonard said.

Seifter and Coakley would have liked the opportunity to comment as well, and they're still hoping they might get it.

On Thursday, Plunkett will present the board with a report on the scheduling changes during its meeting, and the public-forum time available might offer the co-chairwomen an opportunity to speak.

"What we're hoping is that we'll be invited to have some sort of dialogue, that this isn't set in stone," Coakley said. "We're advocating for the gifted and talented, but in actuality, this could really impact all of the children of the county."

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